The Way We Live now isn’t the best known of Trollope’s works nowadays. His novels about politicking churchmen are a lot more familiar. But in his own day he was as well known for being one of the few novelists who really understood money. And this one is the one that is really worth reading if you want an insight into what goes on in board rooms among the people who read the numbers. At this time of financial meltdown, this is more true than ever. The plot is too complicated to summarise and as I urge you to read it I don’t want to spoil it anyway. But it is a cracking read.
The bit I wanted to draw your attention to is a tiny part of the whole, but which is included by Trollope by way of an illustration of what else is going on. One of the main characters is Sir Felix Carbury, a pretty worthless penniless aristocrat. He doesn’t have many redeeming features as a man. One of his many vices is gambling. He gambles in a club with a group of his contemporaries who are equally disreputable and dislikable characters. The card games distribute wealth around the members of the group fairly randomly. But none of the group has much in the way of ready money. So debts are settled with IOUs. The IOUs are rarely redeemed for cash but can be used as stakes in future games.
At one stage in the novel Sir Felix has a run of good luck on the cards and becomes quite wealthy on paper. But he can’t turn his impressive looking assets into hard cash.
The creditworthiness and willingness to pay affects the value and everyone knows that in reality some of the stakes are worthless. But that doesn’t stop the game carrying on.
In the meantime in the real world, much the same thing is going on in a more subtle way. Sir Toby gambles in that as well with equally unprofitable results.
The Way We Live Now has no need to be renamed The Way We Live Then. The fraudulent nature of high finance it portrays is bang up to date and explains the current financial crisis better than a lot of the news reports.
It is out of copyright so you can find a free electronic version at Project Gutenburg and there is a full audio version on Librivox.